Kung Fu Spice (1)
I kicked a stone into the road as I walked home. My confidence was low and I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. I felt like a failure at seventeen years of age.
I was no good at anything. OK, I could cook, but nobody at school thought cooking was cool. Not unless you were on TV. That wasn't going to happen. Not to me.
Ah, well,' I told myself, so Alex Chen is never going to be one of life's stars'
I was nearly home. I was thinking about food. My home is The Golden Dragon, one of the best Chinese restaurants in Liverpool, so I think of food a lot. I cooked here at weekends for my dad. Dad always said I was a really good cook. He even said I was good enough to enter the Young Cook of the Year competition on TV. But I wasn't sure. I mean, I liked cooking, but did I want to be a cook? Well, yes I did - but I wanted to be the best. I wasn't sure I could be that.
So far, I'd never been the best at anything. The school football team had turned me down. I had failed my driving test. Huh! If only I could be the best at something.
'The trouble with young people today,' said Grandmother as she helped herself yet again to the chicken and rice I had cooked, 'is that they don't care about the old ways and traditions. Nobody cares about old people any more.'
By 'young people' she meant me and my dad and by 'old people' she meant herself. Grandmother was the oldest person in the Chen family and she came from Hong Kong every February to see Dad, Mum and me for Chinese New Year.
'A son should visit his mother - not the other way round. Isn't that the way in England, too, Delia, dear?'
'I'm from Liverpool,' said Mum. 'Don't ask me about the rest of England. I've been married to George for eighteen years now and I still don't understand how they do things in Hong Kong.'
Dad smiled. It was the same every year. Grandmother and Mum always pretended to act as if they didn't understand each other, when we all knew they did really.
'And you know how busy the restaurant is at this time,' said Dad. 'Nearly every Chinese family in Liverpool eats out at Chinese New Year. That's when we make most money. And it pays for you to come here, doesn't it, Mother?'
'Maybe so,' said Grandmother. 'But young Alex always stays here for Christmas with the English side of his family-'
'That would be me,' said Mum.
'But he never has Chinese New Year in Hong Kong. He's fifteen now-'
'Seventeen,' I reminded her. I always have to remind her how old I am.
'As I said,' Grandmother continued, 'he needs to get in touch with his own traditions'
'Yeah, I know,' I said. 'But I can do both, can't I? I mean, I was born here, not in Hong Kong. But I still see Hong Kong nearly every summer. And Dad, you make sure I know everything about the place.'
'Everything?' said Grandmother. 'You still can't speak Chinese very well.'
'Neither can Dad,' I said.
'I've just got out of practice, that's all,' Dad answered.
'All right, everybody,' said Mum. 'Relax. Grandmother, we make sure Alex knows about both sides of his family.'
'Really?' Grandmother asked. 'How much does he know about my little brother, his Great Uncle Tong Po?'
'Mother,' Dad said quietly. 'Even I don't know much about Uncle Tong Po. I've only seen him in a few old photographs. Why do you mention him now?'
'Because,' said Grandmother with a big smile, 'he's coming to see us. He'll be here tomorrow morning!'
I'd never heard of Great Uncle Tong Po. Neither had Mum.
'Excuse me,' Mum said. 'Why hasn't anybody ever told me about Great Uncle Tong Po?'
Grandmother was loving every minute of this little drama. She chewed a piece of chicken thoughtfully and then she began.
'My little brother, Tong Po, ran away from home when he was fourteen,' she said. 'He wanted to join one of the temples in China to be a priest and study martial arts, you know, kung fu. I didn't believe him. But he did run away and we never saw or heard from him for years. Mother and Father pretended to forget him, but I don't think they ever did. In those days people didn't ask many questions about young men who ran away from home. It happened all the time. None of us heard from him. Mother and Father both died just a few years later.' I thought this was fantastic! A relative who was a Chinese priest who studied martial arts? Cool!
'So, Grandmother,' I asked, 'was he a priest?'
'Well, he sent me a letter about ten years ago. He said he would see me one day. The letter was from the Shaolin Temple in China - that's where they study Chinese martial arts. So I suppose that's what he did. I wrote to him, telling him all about my family - including you, Alex. He never wrote back. Then this morning I got another letter from him. He said he was coming to see us!'
'A letter from the Shaolin Temple?' I said. 'Wow!'
'No, Alex,' Grandmother said, 'it was from London. He's in London and he's going to come to Liverpool by train. He's going to get a taxi here when he gets to Liverpool station. He'll be here by ten o'clock tomorrow morning. He wants to stay for a month - maybe more. There was no time to write back but I knew you wouldn't mind, of course.'
'Of course,' said Mum, with a small smile.
'Does he speak English, Mother?' Dad asked.
'He spoke English as a boy,' said Grandmother, 'though we mostly spoke in Chinese. You can practise your Chinese, can't you?'
'Don't expect me to!' said Mum.
'Don't worry,' Grandmother laughed. 'We'll tell you what he's saying, right?'
Dad and I looked at each other. We were going to spend a month or more with a Shaolin priest in the centre of Liverpool during Chinese New Year.
I could hardly wait to tell my friends at school!
On Saturday mornings I usually get up early and help out in the restaurant. I cook for the lunchtime customers.
We get a lot of Chinese customers at this time of year. It was no surprise when a Chinese man of about sixty sat down for breakfast. He was small and fat with very short black hair and he looked smart in a dark suit. I watched with interest as he ate the dumplings I had made. I was really good at making dumplings.
He saw me looking.
'Did you make these?' he asked in English with a Chinese accent.
'Yes, sir,' I answered. 'I hope they're OK?'
'Too much salt,' he said quietly. 'They are good but use less salt.'
'Sorry, sir,' I said, thinking he didn't know what he was talking about.
'Here,' he said, picking a dumpling up with his Chinese chopsticks. 'You try - and then tell me if I'm wrong. What tastes stronger, the dumpling or the salt?'
I took the dumpling and put it into my mouth. I thought about it as I chewed. He was right - I'd made them quickly. I never questioned how good they were. They were just a little too salty.
'You see?' he said. 'Only a good cook would know the difference. And I can tell you're a good cook, Alex Chen.'
I heard gentle laughter behind me. It was Mum and Dad and Grandmother.
'Listen to your Great Uncle Tong Po, Alex!' said Dad. 'He especially wanted to taste your dumplings!'
Uncle Tong Po! I was expecting somebody who looked like Bruce Lee, but he looked like... well... like Grandmother but fatter.
Dad closed the restaurant while we all joined Uncle Tong Po round the table. I felt shy in front of him. Even though I've never done martial arts myself, I've always liked watching the kung fu films. And this man knew all about Shaolin kung fu and he was sitting right next to me! I didn't know what to say.
'I used to make these dumplings all the time at the Shaolin Temple,' Uncle Tong Po said. 'I see you know something about cooking too, Alex.'
'Thank you, Uncle,' I said. 'But you must know all about different kinds of kung fu from the temple,' I asked. 'What were you best at?'
'I was best at kung fu cooking!' he laughed. 'I could cook a complete meal in under three minutes!'
He was joking, right?
'You were at the Shaolin Temple for many years, weren't you, Uncle?' Dad asked. 'I think Alex is interested in your kung fu fighting. After all, the Shaolin Temple is famous for teaching kung fu - you know, teaching you to fight with your hands and feet.'
Uncle smiled. 'Yes, but all kung fu means is "a thing done well". And what I did well was cook!'
'Cooking?' I asked. 'But you're a Shaolin kung fu teacher, aren't you?'
'Yes,' said Uncle. 'I teach kung fu cooking!'
Maybe I wouldn't tell my school friends about my great uncle the Shaolin kung fu teacher after all - not if he was only a cook!
'Little brother Tong Po,' said Grandmother. 'It's so good to see you. But now you're here, what are your plans?'
'I'm going to spend time with my family and I'm going to teach Alex some Chinese cooking!'
'Alex is already pretty good, you know, Uncle,' said Dad.
Uncle stood up and said, 'Show me the kitchen and give me a few minutes'
I showed him the kitchen. Then we waited.
After just a few minutes, Uncle came out with a bowl of dumplings.
'Eat!' he told us. So we each took a dumpling and put it into our mouths.
I was used to good dumplings, but these were absolutely delicious. They were the best dumplings I had ever tasted in the whole of my life. I could tell by everyone's faces that they all felt the same.
'So what do you think of your own dumplings now, Alex?' Uncle asked.
Compared to these beautiful dumplings, mine were awful. They had none of the magical taste of Uncle's wonderful dumplings.
'I don't know how you did it, Uncle,' I said. 'I could never cook something that good; never in a million years'
'All good cooks say that when they first taste real cooking,' Uncle said. 'I know I did.'
I looked down. I didn't know what to say.
'We start tomorrow!' Uncle said. 'But first, I'd like to have some rice wine with my big sister!'
Sundays used to be relaxing. Not anymore. Now I got up early and Uncle taught me his cooking.
The first day Uncle made me cook something by myself while he watched. I cooked one of my favourite meat recipes. When I had finished, I put the food in front of him. Then I watched as he tasted it. I looked on nervously. It was the best I could do. I hoped he liked it.
'Too much spice,' he said. 'Spices are added to give more flavour - not take it away. And the meat isn't cooked enough.'
'OK,' I thought to myself, 'you do better!'
Uncle just said, 'Wait here for a few minutes!'
I did. A few minutes later he brought me exactly the same thing. I say exactly, but, of course, it wasn't. Uncles meat with spice was the best I'd ever tasted. The meat was soft and there was just the right amount of spice. It was a meal made with a true love of cooking.
I thought I could never cook like that. I felt like giving up.
Uncle put his arm round me.